“If people in the media cannot decide whether they are in the business of reporting news or manufacturing propaganda, it is all the more important that the public understand that difference, and choose their news sources accordingly.” Thomas Sowell.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines journalism as: “The activity or profession of writing for newspapers or magazines or of broadcasting news on radio or television”. Unfortunately, the realities of contemporary journalism are not so simple. One could argue that today, a more accurate definition of journalism would be: “The activity or profession of enticing readers to purchase newspapers or magazines or of attracting a larger audience for radio and television broadcasts“.
The difference may seem subtle, but the implications for the integrity of our news media are anything but. The news is no longer a valuable asset to those who wish to remain informed on current affairs; it has become a form of entertainment. Stories are heavily distorted to become more sensational or in some cases are even fabricated entirely.
To a zoologist, nowhere is this deception more apparent than in the media’s handling of stories concerning “killer animals”. For someone familiar with these species, these stories are so obviously fraudulent it’s almost laughable. But to those who are not familiar with them, it is incredibly difficult to see how the “journalist” has tweaked the story to pander to your instinctive fears. To show you how this is done, allow us to give you a crash course in tabloid journalism by reporting on a creature you are very familiar with…humans.
Imagine a civilised society exists, undetected on Mars. How would Martian tabloid journalists report on the arrival of human astronauts on their planet during a scientific expedition?
Panic As Population of Deadly Humans Found on Mars!
The infestation was discovered yesterday by Martian teenagers who stumbled across their landing pod in a remote area of the Hellas Impact Basin. The teenagers were lucky to escape with their lives as the deadly creatures were preoccupied with attacking defenseless rocks, a barbaric ritual these monsters refer to as “science”.
These deadly animals tower over Martians, reaching heights of 8ft 11″ and weights in excess of 630kg. We spoke to one expert who has first hand experience with these aggressive beasts. “Me and some buddies took a probing trip to earth a few years back. We were targeting cows, and we’d landed a few trophy specimens, when we felt this tug on the tractor beam. We thought we’d roped another cow, but when we got it on board we realised it was a human. All Hell broke loose. This thing was violent; I mean it did NOT want to be probed. It took all 6 of us to finally get the thing under control. We were lucky to get it off the ship before it killed any of us.”
Humans are ferocious predators; fast, strong and brutal. If you are unfortunate enough to encounter one, running is not an option. These killers clock in at speeds in excess of 44 km/h and they can jump as far as 29 feet. Hiding is not an option either as one unfortunate Predator learned on a recreational hunting trip in 1987. The Predator was using advanced stealth camoflage, but unfortunately he was still hunted down and brutally killed by a bloodthirsty human. His body was never found.
These humans possess incredible strength, capable of lifting weights as great as half a ton, which has left some citizens with concerns over their children’s safety. “I mean, if these things can crush metal cans with their bare hands, surely they’re capable of crushing a Martian child’s head” says K.T, a concerned mother of three.
Dr. A. Lien, head of Anthropological Studies at Mars University says that humans have a “long history of brutal, bloody violence on a planetary scale.” Dr. Lien went on to tell us that “This species has produced the most devastating instruments of death that this solar system has ever seen”.
For now these notorious killers seem to be restricted to an area near the vessel that brought them here. But how long will it be before these murderous beasts start invading our homes?
Remember to keep reading the Daily Martian Sun for all the latest news on the invading, murderous, human horde.
This story is clearly not an accurate representation of human beings. We are instead presented with a caricature that borrows from extreme values to distort the true nature of humans. For example, the height and weight reported both belong to world record holders. The average male human falls somewhere closer to 5ft 10′ and the average weight is somewhere around 68-89 kg (about 1/10 the weight of the record holder). The speed mentioned above is a record set by Usain Bolt and is well above the top running speed of an average human. The figures for the long jump and dead lift are equally, world records set by highly trained individuals and in no way represent the physical capabilities of an average human. This particular “journalism” trick is incredibly common when reporting on animals such as snakes, sharks and spiders. Exaggerating their size and strength serves to make them seem more threatening, instilling fear in the reader.
Another trick is to deliberately distort behaviours that are alien to us to make them seem more frightening, as seen in the line “...the deadly creatures were preoccupied with attacking defenseless rocks…“. Here a geological survey has been distorted to appear as an aggressive act. The same technique is used regularly in the media to portray animals as more aggressive than they really are. For example, when threatened, many snakes will lash out in the direction of their attacker as a warning. This is not an attack, it is a panicked attempt to scare off a predator. However, because of our instinctive fear of snakes, most of us can’t help but interpret the action as aggression. One of the most ubiquitous defensive actions in the animal kingdom, is to try and appear larger or scarier than you really are. Here’s a video of the entirely harmless frilled lizard utilising “aggression” as a defensive action:
Of course humans and animals do occasionally come into conflict but, when these events end in tragedy, the media rarely make efforts to ensure the context of the attack is taken into consideration. For example, in the above story, concerning the Predator that was attacked and killed by a human, the story fails to adequately present the context: Arnie was just defending himself from an alien that was trying to kill him. Many snake bites are the direct result of people trying to handle or kill venomous snakes, and many shark attacks can be attributed to a simple case of mistaken identity (For example, surfers in wet-suits being mistaken for seals by sharks). Here, reckless human behaviour leads to a negative outcome, but the blame is posthumously shifted towards the animal.
While nobody expects journalists to be experts in every field they report on, it is fair to expect that they at least consult with someone who is, particularly when writing a potentially volatile story. This is perhaps where the greatest failing of modern journalism becomes apparent. The term expert is quite subjective, and as such, journalists have free reign to consult with whomever will confirm the biases they wish to purvey. The above story essentially consults with three individuals: a person who has had an incidental interaction with humans, a mother of three, and a professor of anthropology. The first interviewee is referred to as an expert simply because he has “hands on experience” with humans. Perhaps this level of expertise is enough to satisfy some people of his qualification to discuss the issue, but the professor of anthropology is clearly a better choice due to his demonstrable qualifications. Finally, the inclusion of the “mother of three”, is a journalistic bullet-proof vest. The journalist wishes to state that humans are capable of crushing martian skulls, but he can’t because the claim is unfounded. However, because the quote came from someone else, the journalist can claim that he is simply reporting the quote. If the integrity of the claim is ever questioned, the blame shifts back to the mother of three or, better still, the individual questioning the validity of the statement is accused of elitism or attacking the sacred institution of motherhood.
Many of these stories simply neglect to consult with an expert but even when they do, the quotes cannot always be trusted. For example, in the above piece, the professor seems to support the idea of humans as dangerous killers. But in many cases, the testimony of experts is doctored to reflect the viewpoint that the journalist wishes to convey. Here’s the “original” interview answer the professor gave to the journalist:
“It is true that humans have a long history of brutal, bloody violence on a planetary scale, however, in more recent times they’ve taken great strides towards becoming a truly civilised society. While I would agree with your statement that this species has produced the most devastating instruments of death that this solar system has ever seen, instances of their use are actually remarkably rare. It is incredibly important to note that the humans capable of interplanetary travel represent the pinnacle of human civility. They are explorers, keen to discover the wonders of the universe and all the available evidence suggests that, should we encounter one on our planet, they would react to our presence with great excitement rather than hostility.”
It’s clear the professor’s sentiments have been drastically distorted, a technique that is rife in tabloid journalism but also in the production of documentaries. Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” has come under strong criticism in recent years for abandoning its principles of educating the public about these misunderstood animals, choosing instead to pander to sensationalism by spreading misinformation and even airing fictional documentaries. The bizarre thing is, these fictional documentaries feature real scientists, which serves to convince the public that the claims made are genuine. So how did Discovery encourage these scientists to appear in their “mockumentaries”? Simple. They lied to them. Experts were consulted regarding genuine scientific research, but their interview answers were later doctored so that it appeared they were answering completely different questions.
In recent weeks, there has been an epidemic of “news” stories concerning an invasion of Ireland and the UK by “deadly” spiders and supposed incidents of attacks. The public response to these stories has been troubling. Aside from the needless panic that was instilled by these deliberately deceptive stories, the main negative outcome has been the demonisation of Ireland’s native wildlife. None of Ireland’s native spider species pose a threat to human health, and yet many members of the public now kill spiders indiscriminately because they lack the skills necessary to identify a potentially harmful species. Of course, as we’ve already discussed in an earlier article, the ability to identify potentially harmful species is not necessary because even the non-native spiders that have been recorded in Ireland thus far do not pose a threat.
Public support is one of the most vital tools that conservationists have at their disposal. People like the late Steve Irwin went to great lengths to shine a light on some of nature’s most feared species, helping millions of people to see that these animals are simply misunderstood and more deserving of our healthy respect than our fear. If the public learns to appreciate these species, they are valued and thus are easier to conserve. The kind of scaremongering tactics we see in the media today seriously undermines these efforts in the name of a quick profit. Sadly, repairing this damage is much harder than inflicting it.
To put the point of this article more bluntly, these stories harm wildlife and they make people dumber. This problem obviously extends beyond the issues of wildlife and conservation. In almost every aspect of modern life, it is getting more and more difficult to stay informed. You may ask why you should care? To put it frankly, if you are ill informed, you are susceptible to manipulation. Knowledge really is power, and every time you opt for sensationalism over rationality, you give away that power. If you know more about a politician’s scandalous love life than their track record in office then you’ve lost that power. If you haven’t vaccinated your child because you trust a talk show host more than the scientific community, you’ve lost that power. If you are killing wildlife because you fear for your safety, you’ve lost that power.
So how can you take your power back? Simple. Stop being part of the problem. If you choose to consume sensationalist media, you are telling those who provide it that this is how they win your custom. Use your consumer power to vote for a better media. This short talk by Sally Kohn shows just how easy it is to make a positive change.
There are several steps you can take to improve the quality of media you consume. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, boycott all forms of tabloid journalism. Do not buy these newspapers and do not click on any link associated with their online presence. Secondly, start to develop sources you trust on important issues and seek them out when a story breaks. Finally, use social media to your advantage. Sadly, the mainstream media are not always impervious to the influence of private, political or economic pressures. Social media allows you to crowd source your news, helping to ensure you are presented with a more balanced point of view on important issues (Because of the algorithmic filters used by Facebook, Twitter is arguably the better platform for ensuring you are presented with stories that the mainstream media has missed or is presenting with bias).
This post was composed as a response to the misinformation being perpetuated concerning wildlife and the negative reactions it has triggered, but it touches on an issue that is pervasive in every element of modern life. In the age of information, ignorance is a choice. If we do not wish to be a part of a culture of ignorance, then we must stop contributing to it.
About the Author: Rob is a zoologist specialising in invasive freshwater bivalves. He is the PR Officer for The Herpetological Society of Ireland. Find him on Twitter here.
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